In one media conference yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke more sense on terrorism, the Middle East and Syria than his unfortunate predecessor said in five years as party leader.

In the transition from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull, we’ve gone from a leader who seriously spoke of “baddies versus baddies” and contemplated a unilateral invasion of Iraq to one who demonstrates a basic understanding of what is happening on the ground in Syria and the profound problems that would ensue from further Western military intervention — views he shares with President Barack Obama. His remarks from his Manila media conference yesterday are worth quoting at length:

“The President’s position, and this is cutting straight to the chase, is as he has stated publicly — as he said he could send 50,000 marines into Syria and they would be able to retake Raqqa and Mosul of course in Iraq and they could achieve that success, but what happens after that and when they come home? His view… and I have to say this is the view of all of the countries’ leaders with whom I spoke in Turkey, all of them — his view is that the presence of foreign armies in that theatre at the present time would be counterproductive given the lessons of history, relatively recent history.

“The critical thing is the outcome of what you do and the plainly a political settlement is the objective, it is enormously difficult you know the enmities run very deep. But plainly, when you look at Daesh or ISIL, its base is a Sunni population that has felt disenfranchised or oppressed in Syria — and with very good reason — and also has felt left out of the new government in Iraq.”

And later:

The reality is that trust is broken down and that some degree of trust has to be re-established slowly and then over time, because plainly the position is catastrophic… one of the keys in undermining and moving in effect the support that Daesh has, because they are preying on and taking advantage of the deep unhappiness of large parts of the Sunni population in both Syria and Iraq.

In those remarks, Turnbull has committed what for neoconservatives is one of the greatest sins: contextualising terrorism — that is, seeking to identify what is motivating terrorism and what role external forces, including Western military interventions, play in it.

“The presence of foreign armies in that theatre at the present time would be counterproductive given the lessons of history, relatively recent history.” Recent history? That’s the Liberal successor to John Howard making it clear that the Iraq War was “counterproductive” in terms of terrorism. And making it clear that foreign military intervention will make the current problem — created by the Iraq War — worse, not better.

In acknowledging how “counterproductive” Western intervention would be, Turnbull is implicitly contradicting the myth peddled by major party politicians across the West — indeed peddled just this week by Philip Ruddock — that Western foreign policy has no impact on terrorism.

No wonder the hard right can’t stand Turnbull. This sort of nuanced, fact-based assessment of terrorism is anathema to the “slaughter our way to peace” policies advocated by some on his backbench, including failed PM Tony Abbott, and by News Corp. Worse, Turnbull dared to acknowledge that Islamic State has some perceived legitimacy in the Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq, because Sunnis “with very good reason” feel “disenfranchised or oppressed” (he might have more accurately said “slaughtered in the thousands”). Again, this is painful context for warmongers, who insist Islamist terrorism has no real-world motivation, but is instead a kind of mediaeval virus that turns its victims into zombies intent on destroying modernity.

News Corp, at least, has a commercial interest in promoting war and demonising Muslims — hate and fear are a crucial part of its tabloid business model, one that places it in an unholy alliance of interests with the very terrorists its outlets purport to despise. It’s not that its editors and commentators don’t understand that yet another Middle East invasion will not merely not solve the problem but yet again make it worse. Quite the opposite: they’re counting on it, because what better way to prop up its dying media model a bit longer than endless war and endless terrorism driving endless headlines of hate?

Politicians, on the other hand, have no such excuse. Turnbull at least has demonstrated that Australia is now governed by a leader capable of thinking beyond tomorrow morning’s front page.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey